Turns out this is a must! :-) How else is apt-get supposed to know what to install? Duh!
OK, there is probably a helper to create the list... hmmmm. Maybe md5sums isn't necessary. I had my DEBIAN folder setup wrong, and I just found this page about creating debian packages which says its optional.
Trying again... aha! Turns out the problem was that dh-make-php only supports the old version of package.xml - version 1.0. That's too bad. Thankfully I was able to create one thanks to dfm.
The goal for me in setting up package files is to be able to type "debian/rules binary" and have it produce the package for me. The term "binary" might be different depending on the package, but that's what I'm using for php-nexista.
Thanks to this repository howto and devscripts (dkpg-scanpackages) I was even able to setup a repository. W00t!! I'm just doing simple repositories for now, so the sources.list file is:
deb http://www.docunext.com/debian/ binary/
And this page is one I'll need to reference to create a key: